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Long Division: Playoff Hopes Start Close To Home

by Van Oler / Chicago Blackhawks
"Dee-troyt sux!!"

"Dee-troyt sux!!"

A tremendous cheer, no doubt. It's concise, easy to remember even after a few beers, and it sounds great when hollered in conjunction with 20,000 other Hawk fans on a cold winter night at the United Center.

It's one of the best cheers in the NHL. There's only one problem: it isn't true.

  • The Red Wings have been Central Division champions every year since 2000-01.
  • Of the 19 Central Division titles awarded in the 20 seasons since 1987 (no NHL hockey in 2004-05, remember), Detroit has won 13.
  • In all of North American pro sports, the Red Wings' division-level dominance is matched only by baseball's Atlanta Braves, who won the National League East 14 consecutive times from 1992-2005.
  • The Blackhawks and Red Wings played eight games against each other last season; Detroit won seven.

To quote the ubiquitous Kevin Bacon in "A Few Good Men": These are the facts. They are not in dispute.

1930s bank robber Willie Sutton gained lasting fame by saying he robbed banks 'because that's where the money is.' Likewise, the Blackhawks need to play well within the Central Division because 'that's where the points are'. Two-thirds of the points the Hawks will need to contend for the playoffs are available in the 32 games they play against Columbus, Detroit, Nashville, and St. Louis.

Playing well against division opponents doesn't guarantee the Hawks will make the playoffs, but playing poorly within the division guarantees they won't.

The Blackhawks finished last in the Central Division in 2006-07, a full 25 points out of the eighth playoff slot in the Western Conference (Calgary, with 96 points). The optimism that permeates the team and its fans as the regular season approaches is understandable, based on the fact that the team got younger, faster, and better over the summer.

However, the Hawks must squeeze 13 additional wins out of their schedule to be in contention for the playoffs. The simplest place to get many of those extra wins is on home ice against division opponents. A review of 2006-07 shows that, compared to the Wings, the Hawks left 21 points 'on the table' within the Central Division, nearly as many as they'll need to add to last season's 71 if they're going to be playing meaningful games in March and April.

Points earned
within division
Hawks record
against in 2006-07
Record against
Division opponents

It is important to note that the only two members of the Central Division to qualify for the playoffs were the two that had 20 or more wins within the division. A division record around .500 will not be enough; the Hawks will have to do to St. Louis, Columbus, and Nashville what the Red Wings did to them.

For that matter, it would be nice to see the Hawks do to Detroit what Detroit did to them... but one ambitious goal at a time.

Many people, both inside 'the business' and outside, are putting "Blackhawks" and "playoffs" in the same sentence this year. Improving by 25 points in one season will be a formidable task. Pittsburgh made a once-in-a-generation jump of 58 points last season, keyed in large measure by the emergence of Sidney Crosby.

Minnesota's 2006-07 experience is more illustrative of what the Hawks might accomplish. The Wild added 20 points to their 2005-06 total and earned a playoff spot, finishing seventh in the Western Conference with 104 points.

The Hawks will need to finish no lower than second in the Central Division in order to have a chance to make the playoffs next spring. First would be nice, but the truth is that, until demonstrated otherwise, Detroit doesn't suck, no matter how loud we yell.

Disagree if you must, but as Jack Nicholson would say, "You can't handle the truth!"

Van Oler is a Blackhawks fan and freelance writer who grew up in Wheaton and currently resides in Cincinnati, OH.

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